Feted and Hated, Kyoto Enters into Force
SINGAPORE A world plan to fight global warming goes into force on Wednesday, feted by its backers as a lifeline for the planet but rejected as an economic straitjacket by the United States and Australia.
After years of delays, the 141-nation Kyoto protocol formally starts at midnight New York time (0500 GMT) with celebrations including in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto where it was signed in 1997.
The pact is the first legally binding plan to tackle climate change, building on a scheme launched at an Earth Summit in 1992 to stabilise emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, a goal not met. But it excludes until at least 2012 major developing nations India, China and Brazil, which comprise more than a third of humanity.
"This is a great stride forward in our struggle to confront one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century: climate change," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in pre-recorded remarks to be aired during a ceremony in Kyoto later on Wednesday.
"Climate change is a global problem. It requires a concerted global response," he said, adding: "I call on the world community to be bold, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, and to act quickly in taking the next steps. There is no time to lose!"
Kyoto aims to brake a rise in temperatures widely blamed on human emissions of heat-trapping gases that may spur ever more hurricanes, floods and droughts and could drive thousands of species of animals and plants to extinction by 2100.
Sea levels are also expected to rise, threatening low-lying islands, coastal cities and aquifers.
Under the deal, developed nations have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in power plants, factories and cars, by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12.
"Kyoto gives us a very solid basis for our climate policy," said Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, praising it as a small first step towards preventing what could be catastrophic climate change in coming decades.
But Kyoto has been weakened by a 2001 pullout by the United States, the world's top polluter and source of almost a quarter of human emissions of carbon dioxide, because the pact excludes developing nations.
Kyoto "A Building Block"
Some environmental groups were planning protests outside U.S. embassies on Wednesday to underscore Washington's isolation on climate policy.
President George W. Bush has dismissed Kyoto as too costly and misguided for excluding developing nations from the first phase to 2012. His administration once denounced it as "an unrealistic and ever-tightening regulatory straitjacket."
Kyoto backers say rich nations are probably the main cause of a 0.6C (1F) rise in world temperatures since the Industrial Revolution and so should take the lead by cutting use of fossil fuels and shifting to cleaner energy such as wind and solar.
"Kyoto won't do very much in itself but it creates a framework for action," said Kristian Tangen, head of Point Carbon analysis group in Oslo. "But there is a a real risk that the whole thing will collapse after 2012."
Big developing nations, led by China and India, are unlikely to sign up after 2012 unless the United States joins, he said. Bush says more research is needed and that predictions of climate change are too uncertain.
"We will do our part in the developing world," said South African Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk.
"But one of the global challenges will be to encourage countries like the United States and Australia to ratify the protocol or at the very least to remain committed to the multi-lateral international process to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
The United States is not alone in snubbing Kyoto. Many Kyoto supporters -- for whom targets will be legally binding -- are far above 1990 benchmarks.
Spain and Portugal were 40.5 percent above 1990 emissions levels in 2002, Ireland 28.9 percent and Greece 26 percent, according to U.N. data. By comparison, Australia was 22.2 percent above 1990 levels and the United States 13.1 percent.
In Japan, the world's number two economy, emissions have risen eight percent over 1990 levels.
"It is a goal in the sense that it would be going into effect, but only the start for Japan to achieve its responsibilities set under the protocol," Japanese Environment Minister Yuriko Koike told parliament on Wednesday.
Even if fully implemented, Kyoto would cut a projected rise in temperatures by just 0.1C by 2100, according to U.N. projections, a pinprick compared to forecasts by a U.N. climate panel of an overall rise of 1.4-5.8C by 2100.
For some, any reduction would be better than nothing. In the remote South Pacific, low-lying islands are already seeing the future of global warming and rising sea levels, as extreme high tides crash over crumbling sea-walls and flood their homes.
At the poles and high in the mountains, glaciers are melting rapidly and there is a growing fear that global warming could cause huge icesheets in Greenland and Antarctica to melt in the long term, triggering a sea level rise of many metres. Coastlines around the world would be swamped and major cities such as London, Shanghai, Bombay and New York flooded.